Post-Roman invasions into Britain
Germanic tribal names do not indicate where the invaders came from so
much as the generic names given by historians, such as Bede, to the areas
The National Picture
the withdrawal of the Roman Legions from Britain by 410 AD, the former Roman
province of Britannia lost regular
contact with the rest of the Roman Empire and was no longer part of a
money-using economy. Quite rapidly, manufacture, marketing and trade ceased to be
viable activities, and the institutions most dependant on them, the towns and
villas, were abandoned.
The province lost its central government and reverted to being ruled by many
British tribes who no doubt resumed their pre-Roman infighting.
In the resulting mayhem the province became fair game for pirates of many nationalities.
Consequently the resident Britons re-occupied and re-enforced many of their
old Iron-age hillforts.
From the early 5th century AD increasing numbers of Germanic pirates invaded
the eastern and south eastern coasts and rivers. The invaders, who we tend
to call the Saxons competed against each other; the British
tribes no doubt continued their infighting, and the British and invaders
fought each other. The period must have seen the destruction of most of the
vestiges of civilised Roman life in Britain.
From the 8th century the Vikings destroyed and occupied sites
along the western and eastern seaboards. Finally Danish armies were able to
occupy almost all of England.
The resulting wars led, as fortunes flowed and ebbed, initially to a Wessex
leader becoming king of all
Britannia. But by the early eleventh century, the
Danish were in ascendancy and England had a Danish king. Subsequently, when
in turn the kingdom in Denmark
faltered, power in England was handed back to a 'Saxon' king - Edward the
Confessor, who had a Norman mother and had been raised and educated in Normandy.
On Edward's death this led directly to a takeover by the Normans (= Scandinavian
'northmen' who had settled in NW France)
which lasted for the next three hundred years.
The Local Picture
The Cadbury Castle hillfort (near Yeovil) is thought to have been in
re-occupied by the Britons soon after the Roman withdrawal. Archaeology has revealed a substantial 'Great Hall' (20 x
10 metres) and showed that the innermost Iron Age defences had been refortified,
providing a defended site double the size of any other known fort of the period.
seems possible that it was the chief caer (castle or palace) of a major
British ruler of this area and home to his royal family, his followers, servants and horses.
Artist: Mark Taylor
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that Cerdic, the Saxon leader, landed in
Southampton Water, defeated the local British king Natanleod and killed 5000 of his men,
took the area of the New Forest and after five years of struggle against
the native Britons carved out the kingdom of Wessex.
Approximate area of the main British (black
text) and Saxon (blue text) kingdoms
Image: David Stokes
In 552, Cerdic's son,
Cynric defeated the Britons at Sarum (old Salisbury). It was probably at this
time that our area ceased to be ruled by the native British and became
For the next three hundred years there was no peace
as the West Saxons fought rival Saxon kingdoms and were in
constant battle with the native British, with Pict and Scot raiders and even
with germanic Angles.
In 597 AD, Pope Gregory I sent Augustine to England to establish a hierarchy of Bishops
and spread his influence throughout the land. It was to take 37 years before Bishop Birinus,
the first bishop of the West Saxons, established his diocese at Dorchester.
In 643, Cenwalh became king of the West-Saxons. He
built St Peters in Winchester which became the new seat of Bishop Birinus -
The West Country British invaded Wessex in 658 but Cenwalh fought them at Peonnum (thought to be Penselwood near Mere) and
pushed them back to the River Parret which runs through the Somerset
levels. The British were then effectively confined to south Somerset and
the South West.
In 664, the Synod of Whitby decided that the future of England lay with the
Roman rather than the Celtic church. This was a hugely important point that
shaped our history for subsequently England became European-looking rather than
remaining a Celtic island.
By 823 Wessex appears to have been the most powerful of the Saxon kingdoms.
Although the Mercians invaded they were defeated in a bloody battle at Wilton.
Saxon peasant sunken-floored house
From about 3000-1500 years ago people lived in rectangular, often
quite large huts, often with porches. But during Saxon times this
typical small hut, so low that a sunken floor was often dug, was common.
Image: Courtesy of the Highways
In 1995 workmen repairing a wall in Barnes Place
uncovered the skeleton of a young woman with two pieces of jewellery which
conclusively dated her to the 7c.
The name 'Mere' probably comes from the old-English 'maera‘ which can mean
either a lake or a boundary. There is no sign of a lake but Mere is
at the meeting place of three Saxon shires - Wiltshire, Dorset and
Somerset. In which case, Mere would be a late Saxon settlement since the shires
were not created until the 8th century.
The Scandinavian Invaders
Although Wessex was all powerful when it mounted great campaigns
under its king, it was more susceptible to fast local attacks by
pirates. The Danish army landed in 837 and defeated the men of Dorset on
the Isle of Portland.
But then things began to go right for the Anglo-Saxons. In 845 the
combined forces of Somerset and Dorset slaughtered the Danes at the
mouth of the River Parret (Somerset levels).
Later, Winchester was attacked from the sea by a
large Danish force which was beaten back by the men of Hampshire and
Berkshire. When King Ethelbert of Wessex died, his body was buried in
Sherborne Abbey - did this indicate that the diocese at Winchester was
too badly damaged to be useable?
In 871 Alfred became king of Wessex. Within a month Alfred was unsuccessfully
fighting the Danes at Wilton. It was a very bad year; there were
nine battles and no gain for the men of Wessex who decided to enter a peace treaty
with the Danes.
The extent of the Danelaw
Map: British Museum
878 began even worse for Wessex. The Danish army defeated Alfred at Chippenham
and then rode all over Wessex expelling the people - the misery caused
to the local people here can be imagined. King Alfred and a small band
of men fled to the Isle of Athelney in the moors on the Somerset levels.
Although Alfred had lost his army, with the help of the Somerset forces Alfred
engineered a very successful comeback. He defeated the Danes at Edington
near Westbury. Within a year the Danish agreed
to withdraw to the Danelaw - an area north of a line from the Thames to
Alfred began to
develop effective defences against the Danes. He raised an army
and between 878 to 892 constructed a series of fortified centres (burhs)
the South. The burh for our area was the fortified hilltop town at
Shaftesbury (bury = burh) which it is estimated had a strength of about 140 men. Another
at Wilton, at the junction of the Wylye and the Nadder, became one of
the most important settlements in Wessex. Here there was a mint; the
burgh may even have give its name to Wiltshire.
|Shaftesbury grew into the most important local town
its own mint. The
very important and wealthy Benedictine nunnery of Shaftesbury was founded by Alfred the Great about the year 888; over which
his daughter Elfgiva, Æthelgeofu or Algiva, presided as abbess. Successive
Saxon kings each added to the lands of the nunnery. We can tell that this
area was threatened by the Danes since in 1001 Æthelred 'the unrede' allowed the nuns to temporary relocate to
the monastery of Bradford-upon-Avon where were kept the relics of the Blessed
Martyr (King Edward) and other saints. The Danish king of England, Knute died
at the Shaftesbury nunnery in 1035.
In about 910 Edward included London into his territory and thus the
capital of England moved from our area (Winchester) to London.
By about 1000 AD, Danish invaders under King Sweyne, were
attacking England. In 1003 they landed at Exeter and then moved into
Wiltshire where they plundered and burnt the burh at Wilton. The Wilton
mint was moved to more secure Old Sarum hillfort which the Danes then
By 1006 the Danes were able to plunder all of inland southern England
without interference. The people of Winchester, relatively safe in their
walled town, watched with horror as the Danes went by carrying meat and
plunder back to their ships 50 miles away. This area would have
been very badly affected since the Chronicle tells us "they had
terribly marked each shire in Wessex
with fire and devastation".
By 1015 the Danish King Knute had overrun much of Dorset, Wiltshire
In 1016, King Edmund fought the Danes at 'Pen (Penselwood?) near Gillingham' and at Sherston
(north Wiltshire). These and a series of other battles were
indecisive but did lead to a truce with the Danes agreeing to withdraw
again to the Danelaw. Later in the year Edmund died and Knute (Canute) proclaimed
himself king of all England. He personally ruled Wessex. Knute died in
1035 at Shaftesbury and was buried at Winchester.
The local area is well filled with villages having Saxon names. Place names ending in
'bury', 'ham', 'ton', 'ley' and 'ing' are of Saxon period origin; e.g.
Burton, Bourton, Stourton, Gillingham, Silton, Milton, Kilmington, Brewham,
Bonham, Feltham and Shaftesbury but apparently no 'ley's or 'ing's.
An execution site found in 2009 near
Weymouth. Dental enamel analysis showed that the victims came
from a land to the north of Britain. The interpretation is
that this is where a band of 51 defeated Norsemen were ritually
decapitated by the Saxons. Some skulls had been removed -
displayed on stakes? They were all young men - barely in their
Carbon dating showed they were buried between 910 and 1030AD.
The location is a typical place for a Saxon execution site - on
a main road and a parish boundary and close to prehistoric
Photo: Oxford Archaeology
The annual collection of the Vikings' ransom required a sophisticated system
of tax collecting. When the Normans looked across the channel towards
England they saw not just a thriving wealthy country but an efficient tax
harvesting system that could deliver that wealth to them. So when in 1066
Edward the Confessor died, William the Norman found no shortage of French barons
willing to help him contest the throne by force.
And so the efficiently-organised, and largely peaceful country unwittingly
created its own destruction; the Saxon era came to a very sudden and violent
end. In its place a warrior ruling class and a heavy feudal system.
Some of the images on this page have been reproduced from the excellent web site for Anglo-Saxon England at
Good overview of Saxon life on http://www.angelcynn.org.uk/
Saxon illustrations and ideas at http://www.regia.org/village.htm
Saxon education and re-enactment at http://www.regia.org/regmemb.htm